I have been occupying myself with social media marketing for over six years. I have seen platforms erupt out of nowhere but also disappear at the same speed, rumours about the best posting strategy be confirmed or disappear and trends come and go.
When we look at social media marketing, and Facebook and Instagram in particular, it seems that marketing for small business has become easier and less capital intensive. Our target group seems to be much easier to reach and more receptive for new and small brands. Before social media, it was necessary to invest large amounts of capital into TV, newspaper or billboard advertising. If you did not have a big brand name, it was very tough to establish a new name. On a relative scale, social media marketing is cheaper than traditional marketing. But this does not mean that you do not have to invest a significant amount of capital in it.
I decided to write this article to give you a more realistic view on Instagram marketing. When I did research for my own marketing strategies, I got really frustrated by biased articles who tried to convince me to jump on the Instagram bandwagon and spend my whole budget only on that marketing channel. My goal here is not to demonise Instagram – I think it is a very useful tool. But we need to have realistic expectations and use it in the right way.
Easy and Cheap?
As a small business owner, your budget is limited. Hence, you need to decide where your money can be invested to achieve the highest return. It seems so easy: just set up an Instagram account, post a picture, add hashtags and followers and customers will just flood your store. However, the world of social media has kept turning and it has become very difficult to be heard among all the Instagram-noise – especially if you are not willing to spend money on it.
There are success stories of companies which have built their customer base almost exclusively via social media. It looks tempting – but hardly do we know the background stories of these business. How much budget did they have for social media advertising? Did they hire an agency? Did they deliver in-house? Do they have a budget for photographers or influencers? If yes, how big is it?
What are Your Goals and How Can You Achieve Them?
First and foremost, you need to know your strategy of what you want to achieve. Brand awareness? Traffic to your website? Conversions (ie. sales)? You then need to think about how you can achieve it and this is the crux. Most of the content online about how to build successful social media campaigns is very vague, biased towards the positive impact of Instagram and lacks concrete recommendations.
I have read a thousand times advice such as “create great content” (Oh really? Didn’t know about that…), switch to a business account (*sigh*) or “establish your brand identity and post consistently”. I completely agree with the importance of creating great content, being true to your brand identity and have a consistent strategy. These are marketing basics. But today, neither of these pieces of advice guarantee you exposure on Instagram.
Lack of Data Transparency about Instagram Strategies
When I did the research for this article, I found little data, most of the recent articles were based on outdated data. For example, one article published this year claimed a high ROI (Return-On-Investment) of Instagram ads based on data from 2014.
I think that the challenge is that there is a lack of data and understanding of what is really going on behind the Facebook scenes. Whoever covers the space of social media marketing, needs to make assumptions based on a lack of transparent data, case studies and Facebook’s cryptic remarks and explanations.
Before we go into the details of paying for advertisement, we need to discuss one major pre-requisite: professional-looking, “Insta-worthy” pictures. These are a major hidden cost factor which is rarely being mentioned in the discussion about social media marketing.
No matter if you want to grow organically or via paid services, there is no way around them. People are swamped and have high visual standards for adverts – professional looking photography, product staging with beautiful props at unique locations, etc. Before social media, professional photo shoots and product staging were limited to glossy magazines. Today, the same aesthetic standards are applied to any account on Instagram. Users do not care if you have the budget or not – your pictures have to look amazing. And unless you have a natural eye for photography, are a master of staging and editing, you will probably need the support of professionals – photographers, stylists, models, make-up artists. Sometimes you may even need to book a location.
How Can You Achieve Instagram Growth?
We have covered the basics. Now I would like to tell you something about growth. The secret ingredient to social media growth is: tataaa, paying for it. In the end, Facebook is a business and they want to make money. Their commodity is data about and access to your potential target group.
Organic engagement is becoming harder and harder. There are still cases of Instagram accounts which explode organically (ie. without paying for advertising, followers etc.). Nevertheless, these are the exceptions, not the norm. Instagram has become a very noisy place and it is becoming tougher and tougher to get noticed, especially if you are not willing to pay for it. Furthermore, your engagement will significantly drop after you ran some paid advertisements. For a simple reason: Facebook wants you to keep paying for it.
One thing I also realized when I compare the current Instagram to when I started with social media marketing. It was possible to reach many potential followers or customers with a daily budget of as low as USD 1. Times have changed and while you can still opt for such a small amount, your reach will be very low. I advise to be realistic and reserve a chunk of your company’s budget for social media marketing. Focus on one or two channels maximum and spend it there.
The Influencer Game Has Changed
Another development was the change of the influencer game. In 2014 there were some people using the platform and promoting products. But there was no term like “influencers” as yet and their density was nowhere near today’s.
At this point in time, it may have been enough to send out products to influencers. One famous example is Daniel Wellington watches which became an instant success with their strategy of sending out free products to people with a large as well as small follower base.
Today, it is not enough to send out freebies anymore. High-quality influencers ask for fees (depending on the fit, niche, follower size and reach), which can go up to five figures for one post. Even if you follow a “cheaper” strategy of sending out your product to smaller influencers (usually under 10,000 followers), this does not come for free. Never forget that there are opportunity costs of the products and shipping. You basically send out products which could be sold at a profit. It will also depend on your products: If your products are in the premium segment, can you really afford to send them out for free? And would the impact of this influencer really offset your cost? Have a very clear idea in mind if and which influencers you would like to target and try to establish a relationship with them. Furthermore, social media users are not stupid – they can differentiate between somebody who genuinely likes your product and a sponsored post.
How Can You Use Instagram to Your Advantage?
I recommend to see social media as an “add-on” to your marketing. Do not see it as your main platform. Whichever channel you decide to choose, it should be a support for your main business. Social media platforms can take your exposure away from one day to the other. (For example, there was a significant drop in Instagram engagement from one day to the other in 2019.) This is important to bear in mind. Do not get lost about how to get followers or invest too much time into the social channels. As I said in my recent post about data analytics, try to find out which channels give you the best conversion and focus your effort on these.
I learned to see Instagram as a kind of catalogue. It has to be up-to-date – otherwise people may think your business is not – and a good overview of your product range. Try not to obsess about followers, likes or “how to beat the Instagram algorithm”. Furthermore, Instagram allows me to connect with my followers and potential customers in a personal way. I give behind-the-scenes insights and connect with likeminded people.
If you want to go for a marketing campaign with a heavy social media focus, make sure to be clear about your goals and plan ahead. A common mistake of first-time entrepreneurs is to focus on product development only. By the time they think about marketing, they have burned through a large amount of their budget. Reserve a big chunk of your capital for social media marketing in advance and start early to think about your strategy and establish relationships with potential followers and influencers.
Are you currently thinking about starting social media marketing for your business? What are your questions? Or do have any advice you would like to share here? Please let me know!
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All information as of the date of publishing/updating. We cannot accept responsibility for the correctness or completeness of the data, or for ensuring that it is up to date. All recommendations are based on the personal experience of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the recommended services above.